Louis Rosen: Pacific Overtures – A Conversation with Librettist/ Originator John Weidman

Pacific Overtures received enough mixed reviews in Boston to know it was in trouble. Before he became the most important producing director in theater, Hal Prince had been a stage manager. “He was cool as a cucumber,” Weidman recalls. “Everyone had assignments. What was at stake for him was enormous. There were things in the book that got cut; the opening number was simplified. Reviews were better in Washington. We were all thinking everyone had done his work.”

In the 1976 review of its Broadway premiere, Walter Kerr of The New York Times called the musicalneither East nor West,”a piece which “no amount of performing, or of incidental charm, can salvage.” Clive Barnes applauded aspects of it and its ambitions, but the critic’s use of “pretty” to describe music and lyrics is a surface perspective of complex underpinnings achieving provocative results. To many musical theater fans, including host Louis Rosen (and myself), Pacific Overtures showcases some of its creators’ best and most intriguing work. The original production was cast entirely with men.

Today’s illuminating discussion takes us through the musical song by song.

John Weidman had completed a degree from Harvard in East Asian studies. It was the early 1970s and unsure what he wanted to do, the young man began Yale Law School. “I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but it gave me a library in which to hide and be a writer.” His father Jerome Weidman had won (with George Abbott) the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Fiorello, undoubtedly casting a long shadow. At Yale, John wrote Pacific Overtures, a story of first intrusions/effects of the outside world on Japan as the Japanese might’ve perceived it. This was his first play. “I knew what it looked like on the page, capitalize the character name and indent,” he quips deadpan.

The collegian wrote to Hal Prince whom he’d met as a youngster, inquiring about a job in the producer’s office, adding he’d written a play. Weidman knew what he was doing. Prince had no opening, asked to see the work, and agreed to produce and direct it. “Hal was known as someone willing to collaborate with untested talent.  Boris Aaronson, Prince’s go-to designer was stumped as to what it would look like onstage. The producer recognized that his collaborator identified a problem he hadn’t seen. He decided it should be a musical.” (JW)

Rosen asks about the role Prince played. JW: “Hal was the hub of the wheel and the show’s fundamental creative impulse.” Weidman and Sondheim had conversations, Prince and Sondheim had conversations. The latter were best friends. It apparently took some time for Sondheim to be convinced this was a good idea. By all reports Prince could be very persuasive. Prince and Sondheim took a trip to Japan.

In Mark Horowitz’s book Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, we learn that in the upper righthand corner of a lyric page, the composer/lyricist was in the habit of writing a phrase designating what he was trying to achieve. On Pacific Overtures’ opening number he wrote “a hymn to order-nature.”

LR: “Sondheim makes a point of establishing a culture for an audience that might be unfamiliar with it, especially as it was in 1853.                         JW: “Forty-five years ago it’s hard to overstate how little people knew about all things Japanese. A suggestion that people ate raw fish was difficult to believe.”            LR: “The American impression of Japan was that of a place that manufactured cheap, poorly made products. Steve was asked if he was aware of its culture before the project. His answer was ‘no.’ It was Weidman that introduced him to it – and the trip that he and Prince took.”

Pacific Overtures starts in 1853. Weidman and Rosen point out the astonishing amount of information conveyed in its opening: In the middle of the world we float, /In the middle of the sea./The realities remain remote/In the middle of the sea…Things are being done/Somewhere out there, not here./Here we paint screens…The number’s content goes on to indicate isolation, tradition – especially that of looking back not forward, reverence for nature, humility, honor, the integration of art. We listen to the song.

Sondheim cited the inspiration of a screen he saw at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first panel was blank, the second had only a part of a bird’s tail, the third showed the rest of the bird and a tree. Theirs, he said, “is the ultimate culture of less is more.”

Rosen contrasts the approach of Rodgers and Hammerstein to The King and I. Many of those songs could be picked up and put in another musical or presented (they were) as stand-alones. This is untrue of Sondheim’s highly specific score. “Steve said when he came back from Japan, he brought a 3LP set of court music that came with a long, detailed booklet about Japanese music, written in Japanese which he had translated. He researched Japanese instrumentation and the difference in tonal scales, particularly the minor pentatonic scale, the essence of Japanese music. He absorbed it.” LR

“There is No Other Way,” Weidman reminds us, “is a song about certain social conventions (in this place at that time) that prevented people from saying things to each other. Kayama, a lowly prefect has been assigned to go out to the Americans (in the harbor) and tell them they have to leave. The assumption is, (as sacrificial lamb), he’ll be disgraced. He has to inform his wife.” Two Observers describe the scene and sing her thoughts and words. As in Japanese culture, the female is muted. Muffled drum rhythm dictates movement very like Kabuki. It’s slow, graceful, and precise with pauses that never feel empty.

Sondheim has often said everything starts from the language of the book.                 JW: “One of my tasks was to create a language that seemed as if it represented another time and another place, formal, not casual or colloquial.”                                   LR: “Steve saw haiku as inspiration for certain lyrics purposefully avoiding all words derived from romance languages in order to achieve the tone. Imagery is unlike anything else he’d previously written. Capturing the rhythms of another language is a dauntingly high bar to set.” “Four Black Dragons” is woven into a bigger scene. Early versions contained vignettes within the song that Weidman later removed to allow for better flow.

We listen to the original Broadway version. The song has a relentless processional feel. “Hai! Hai! Hai!” emulates gulls. Allusion to birds occurs throughout the piece. “…and I thought it was the end of the world-and it was!” foretells what follows.

Weidman sees the story as revolving around two men. Manjiro is a fisherman who, lost at sea, was rescued by Americans and lived in Boston, picking up U.S. habits before returning to Japan. In the course of the play he transitions back to his country’s prevailing customs and ideology. Kayama, on the other hand, moves forward with the times, assimilating western attributes and conventions. Eventually there’s an ideological parting of the ways. This happens so gradually, you can almost see them pass going in opposite directions.

JW: “Chrysanthemum Tea” is a freestanding song that stopped the plot. It has the subliminal vibe of a Jewish mother trying to decide what to do with her nitwitted son. CSC (Classic Stage Company) took this out in their recent revival. People missed it, but I think it was a successful experiment.” “If the tea the Shogun drank will/Serve to keep the Shogun tranquil…” is genially sung as the passive ruler, having taken to his bed, is poisoned day after day. Rosen decides he’ll leave it out of today’s session as well. We move on to “Poems.”

JW: “Manjiro has given Kayama an idea of how not to be defeated by the situation. They’re walking back to his house relieved and bonded…” Sondheim’s made a point of saying his poems are imitation Haiku (not exact in required syllables.) They work wonderfully in the song. “I used the haiku form at several places in the book, but I’ve taken those out,” Weidman comments. Perhaps another case of the composer/ lyricist’s admitted raiding of libretto. Nature pervades; Manjiro refers to America as a parallel to Kayama’s wife. Having received no news of her husband for many days, however, his wife has committed seppuku. The next song radically shifts mood.

Manjiro’s plan involves placing a walkway of tatami mats in a little cove at Kanagowa so that the Americans never touch Japanese soil. A local madam instructs her girls (prostitutes) in the ways of foreigners. “Welcome to Kanagowa:” “With all my flowers disappearing/In alarm/ I’ve been reduced to commandeering/From the farm./But with appropriate veneering Even green wood has its charm.” Sexual positions are deftly alluded to without being indiscreet. Weidman tells us they eventually let women play women’s roles which “invited the audience into an easier relationship.” Sondheim continues to tinker with lyrics feeling too few get the jokes.

“Someone in a Tree” is next. It seems to be an elaboration of if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? History is incomplete without an observer. Sondheim wrote that he loves “its ambition, its attempt to condense past, present and future- all based on a five page scene by Weidman.” Weidman interjects they could hardly just have Commodore Perry come ashore and hand over a document. Sondheim’s splendid imagination instead conjured point of view from a warrior hidden beneath a treaty house who could hear but not see, a boy in a tree who could see and not hear, and the boy as an old man remembering back.

The original play is contained within the musical’s first act. “Please, Hello,” an accurate representation of the succession of countries who began to trade with Japan opens Act II. Every piece of music exemplifies that which we associate with the countries – examples include John Philip Sousa for America, Gilbert and Sullivan for England… yet lyrics are completely incongruous.

“A Bowler Hat” is the number that balances and resolves the two directions in which Manjiro and Kayama are going,” Weidman notes. “I wrote this in a series of letters. Steve chose to write around them. It please me that so much of my language is still in the piece: “I wear a bowler hat./They send me wine./The house is far too grand./I’ve bought a new umbrella stand./Today I visited the church beside the shrine…”

Rosen inquires about “Pretty Lady,” the song sung by three British sailors.                                                                                                   JW: “We’re barreling towards the crisis. We needed one event that would epitomize several, so the sailors’ misunderstanding is appropriate. In 1976, they projected easy charm, subsequent productions find them more threatening.” Though understandings are politically established, tensions remain.                                                    LR: “What strikes me is the music’s beauty, which offers no hint of the undercurrent of what’s actually happening which is something so ugly. Steve just writes this gorgeous round. If I recall, the father comes out and kills one of the sailors.”

JW: “Correct.  Fifteen years have passed. The show then flips to Kayama and his party on the way to court attacked by masked assassins, one of whom is Manjiro. The puppet (literally) emperor resolves modernization in the kinetic “Next.”                     LR: “Steve describes this number as being vaguely rock based to distinguish it from the earlier part of the score.                                                                                                                     JW: “I rewrite it continually to keep up with statistics/the times. The Japanese bought The Empire State Building, a league home run baseball record was set by a Japanese man. I’d weave this kind of thing in.

Rosen and Weidman agree that Pacific Overtures has never been the most popular show in Sondheim’s canon. It requires an Asian cast and is challenging. The host points to political thinking with which the composer/lyricist hadn’t been involved before, something likely originating with Weidman’s play.

An audience member asks whether its creators were concerned about Pacific Overtures appealing only to a narrow audience. “No,” Weidman responds. “That Hal Prince thought this was a good idea is a reflection of his courage and his arrogance. A hit didn’t have to run for years then and he might’ve felt if the work was good, people would come.”  “His arrogance was one of his greatest assets,” Rosen adds smiling.

Asked about his bucket list, Weidman says “I wanted to write a show about The Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which I still think would make a great musical. It’s an astonishing story with amazing characters.”                         LR: “It sounds like another really natural commercial opportunity missed, John.”                                    JW: “The problem is that if you’re not gonna write it with Stephen Sondheim, who are you gonna write it with?!”

A terrific session delivered by two talented, old friends. Meaty and enlightening.

Pacific Overtures filmed live on Broadway – dark, but it gives you an impression. Watch on YouTube.

JOHN WEIDMAN has written books for a wide variety of musicals, among them three with scores by Stephen Sondheim: Pacific Overtures, Assassins and Road Show; Contact, co-created with  director/choreographer Susan Stroman; Happiness, score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, Take Flight and Big, scores by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire; the new book, co-authored with Timothy Crouse, for the Lincoln Center Theater/Roundabout Theatre/National Theatre revivals of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, and Arrabal, score by Gustavo Santaolalla, directed and co-choreographed by Sergio Trujillo.  He’s currently working on a musical adaptation of the movie Norma Rae with composer/ lyricists Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal. 

About Alix Cohen (964 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.